Eagle Island honor farm

The dairy barn at the old Eagle Island Honor Farm is one of the buildings at Eagle Island State Park that could be restored if local efforts are successful.

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Eagle Island State Park has been a popular place to swim, ride horses and walk dogs since 1982. Those who lived on the site before it became a park probably didn’t enjoy it so much. The State of Idaho bought the 500-acre Catlin Ranch in 1929 for $72,000, not for the pleasure of park goers but as a place for prisoners. It would be known as the Eagle Island Honor Farm.

Prison officials were always looking for ways to keep inmates busy. In the early days of the penitentiary they made little rocks out of big ones, not as a punishment, but as a part of the construction of the facility itself. Prisoners quarried stone from Table Rock to build the walls of what we know today as the Old Idaho Penitentiary.

John W. Snook became warden in 1909 and immediately sought something to keep idle inmate hands busy. Many states used prisoners to build roads. Snook was against that because of the seasonal nature of road building and security concerns. It took many years to convince Idaho Legislators to invest in an entrepreneurial project at the prison. They appropriated $20,000 in 1923 for a building to house the enterprise they had settled on. Inmates would manufacture work shirts for the Reliance Manufacturing Company of Chicago.

The new operation quickly inspired some inmates. Five of them sawed out of solitary and used the roof of the yet-to-open shirt factory as a route of escape.

That discouraging start aside, the factory opened on Oct. 1, 1923 with hopes of bringing in $1,000 a month to state coffers while employing 150 men. The operation included 80-foot-long cutting tables and 130 sewing machines. Each working day the factory could turn out more than 100 dozen shirts. Inmates could earn between $5 and $15 a month.

With the initial success of the shirt factory, prison officials were able to convince lawmakers that a prison farm was a good idea. The main goal of the farm was to reduce prison expenses by having inmates raise their own food.

In something of a replay of the shirt factory’s history, two inmates escaped from the Eagle Island Honor Farm in 1930 practically before it could really get going. Escapes would not be rare.

There was also a large planned “escape.” In September of 1930 the state game department and the Ada County Fish and Game League released 500 fledgling pheasants on the farm. Inmates fed them regularly to assure they got a good start.

Developing the farm included clearing large tracts of cottonwood. Inmates filled in sloughs and leveled the land, using the abundant gravel to build roadways. The State constructed a dormitory and dining room for 48 men, along with a dairy barn and twin silos. By 1932 the farm was raising barley at 55 bushels per acre, plus corn, oats, alfalfa and clover. There were 70 head of milk cows in residence, 80 head of young beef stock, 175 hogs, 90 sheep and some ducks, geese and chickens.

A one-acre garden plot was filled with neat rows of beans, beets, peas, turnips, carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. A three-acre plot had been planted with 3,500 black locust trees. The idea was to replace cottonwood posts on the farm with more durable black locust fencing.

The farm supplied all the butter and milk for the penitentiary and most of the pork, beef and mutton needed to feed the inmates.

The Eagle Island Honor Farm operated into the 1970s. Today, the dormitory, milk barn, shop, warden’s house and the slaughterhouse, which was built in 1965, are in various states of decay. Recently there has been renewed interest in restoring the buildings for their historical value and finding a new use for them.

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